Fixing the technology isn’t always enough

Posted by on Apr 23, 2012 in Computerworld Columns | 1 comment

Every IT person has had one of these situations. A user comes to you with a problem. You fix it and announce, “Problem solved” or “Case closed.” But you’re met with a long, uncomfortable silence or a blank stare. It’s an awkward moment that you can end only by

saying something like, “Well, let me know if there’s anything else I can do for you,” before shuffling away, wondering where you went wrong.

Where we go wrong, more often than not, is in handling the facts of a problem but not the feelings that accompany it. The technology problem is solved, but the feelings that the problem aroused in the user — anger, disappointment or frustration — are unresolved.

I can imagine what you have to say to that: “Dealing with feelings is not in my skill set.” We geeks are adept at handling the facts of people’s problems and notoriously oblivious to their feelings. But if you want to be good at working with nontechnical people, you have to expand your ability to deal with both. Whether they ask for it or not, whether they realize it or not, they need you to help them resolve both to move forward.

So why don’t they just tell you that they’re upset? Two reasons: At work, people don’t feel comfortable talking about feelings. It’s safer to complain about facts. And sometimes it’s hard to put feelings into words. People may not even be able to articulate the nature of their disappointment.

I happen to think that geeks can handle these situations. We’re problem-solvers, and if we just expand our definition of the problems we solve to include both the facts and the underlying feelings, we can deal with them like any other difficulty. Relax; you don’t have to be Dr. Phil. You just need to use some responsive words and send subtle signals that show you care.

Empathize methodically. Train yourself to recognize emotions that aren’t explicitly stated. Listen to users’ word choices. (“It just died on me.”) Recognize the feelings in their tone of voice. Put yourself in their shoes. Then, simply acknowledge what they’re feeling by saying something such as, “This must be really frustrating for you.” When you do that, users feel that you are trying to help them, as people, rather than just tending to the machines. And when the problem is solved and the case closed, speak to both the technical and experiential parts of the problem. Say something like, “It’s working now and should make your life a whole lot easier.” Seriously — it’s that simple.

Apologize with dignity. Sometimes a simple apology will make the difference, even though you have nothing to apologize for. It’s not a sign of weakness to let someone know you’re sorry that they’re experiencing discomfort or inconvenience. It’s not necessarily an admission of personal guilt either. Just say, “I’m sorry that this is so difficult.”

Share your own feelings about the situation. It comforts people to know that they aren’t the only ones who might feel a certain way about a situation. Letting them know about your own experiences allows you to build a relationship rather than conduct a transaction. When you say, “This has been keeping me up at night too,” you’re sharing in the person’s urgency and upset.

Technical people who can navigate both facts and feelings are the ones that business people really want to work with. When you include the user’s emotional life in your problem definition, you become that magical person who can work with anyone.


 Copyright 2012 by Computerworld Inc., One Speen Street, Framingham, MA, 01701.  Reprinted by permission of Computerworld.  All Rights Reserved.

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One Comment

  1. Great column, Paul! Another example of how simple, clear communication can solve so many problems. Makes me eager to read that book of yours… any release date yet?

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